Ten years ago, I was a Resident Director in a freshman building. I was a second semester senior, working on my thesis, tickled to be living in a residence hall with mostly first-year students. They kept the quintessential college experience alive for me: the late nights, the cram sessions, the homesickness, the smells of chicken wings and stale beer.
I was months away from graduation and the excitement was palpable. I couldn’t wait to earn that rightful sheepskin, spend the summer traveling, and then move to Boston to be with my boyfriend and live a fabulously urbane grown-up life!
But I had to get through the winter first. The winter in Northwest Pennsylvania is seemingly interminable and gray and bitter and prompted me to buy a sunlamp that I used constantly.
That winter of 2002 was especially heavy. My sunlamp was always on.
Chuck lived in a fraternity house off-campus. We knew of each other as we had many people in common and were both active in the Poli Sci department. Two of his fraternity brothers Jerry and Jeff were on staff with me in the freshman dorm.
My college boyfriend was one of Chuck’s RAs. We would see him around campus and Chuck always had a quick smile and a witty aside for us. He was brilliant, an Adonis. He would have become a remarkable lawyer, offering a voice to the marginalized with his splendid writing and speaking abilities.
Chuck did not survive the winter. On February 11, 2002, he took his own life. Jerry and Jeff came to my room and we sat, angry and begging for the hands of time to reverse. Our boss Josh stood and listened and made us all feel heard.
Ten years have passed and the pain and the ache and the loss is still acute. I trace back over the court case that ensued following Chuck’s death. I examine the evidence like an archaeologist trying to piece together clues of how the structure of a promising young man’s life, once in tact, tumbled and became buried. I think of his family and wonder how they have processed the pain. I think about the paralysis I would feel for the rest of my days if the same happened to one of my children.
I was not a close friend of Chuck’s but my life was irreversibly changed by his death.
As someone who has suffered from major depression, I do not hesitate to advocate for others who suffer similarly. If I am having a hard time in mental health land, I will not send you a postcard, “All’s sunny and well–wish you were here!” If you ask, I will tell you the medications I have taken and continue to take. I will tell you the dosage. I can share my experiences with months-long insomnia when I was a sophomore in college that were punctuated by several weekends in which I spent hours holding my mother captive to my tears. I have had racing thoughts and wondered if the pain I had been feeling for a year would ever EVER fade. I celebrate the fact that the people around me implemented man-on-man defense at certain times and implemented a serious time-out on the court. For all these reasons, I refuse to perpetuate the stigma associated with mental illnesses and the therapies that treat them.
I now teach college students, and by virtue of being an employee of a church, I consider myself a part of a ministry. I see many young people at their best and brightest. I see some at their most disaffected, their most despondent, on the worst days of their lives.
I pray with them and I pray for them. When my students are not in class, I fret and I pester them. I make a nuisance of myself and I do not apologize. I refer students to the counseling center and if they don’t make contact I do it again.
I married that college boyfriend, a mental health therapist. We both share singular ministries that involve direct service to people.
I do not believe that anyone is beyond help, that any person is beyond redemption. I believe our world is a widespread construction zone but I do not believe that God is powerless to save us from it. He often places people in our path to help save us from ourselves and our own demons. I wish so much that Chuck and countless others could have been in a place to receive this help. I know this is not always possible, but I pray that our world would continue to increase its value and awareness for the importance of sound mental health.
I will try mightily to do my part in making this so. Of course, I am only one person. But so, too, was Chuck.